Elbow room

An Outdoor View

When Outsiders find out I'm from Alaska, they often ask why I live there. I say it's for the fishing, but the real reason has more to do with elbow room.

The population of Washington, where I'm spending the winter, is pushing 7 million, about 10 times Alaska's population. In terms of people per square mile, Washington has 101. That's 100 times more people per square mile than Alaska.

Population density greatly affects fishing quality. The more people, the more impact on fish and damage to habitat. The more people, the more rules needed to protect the fish and habitat. More rules equate to less freedom and enjoyment.

It may be helpful to have a lawyer along to interpret the regulations while fishing in Alaska, but Washington is worse. The Evergreen State's stringent fishing regulations have evolved as a result of a large-and-growing population.

For example, Washington went "barbless" years ago. Barbless hooks are now required for all species in Puget Sound, except for jig gear for forage fish, such as herring. When fishing for salmon in any marine waters of the state, single-point, barbless hooks are required. Barbed hooks are still allowed in Alaska waters, and treble hooks are allowed in most Alaska waters.

Under the Endangered Species Act, Puget Sound chinook salmon and steelhead are listed as "threatened." The Washington sport-fishing regulations are peppered with restrictions due to concerns over this or that salmon stock. In Alaska, no fish are listed.

Remembering the way things used to be in Washington can be pleasant, but it's also a curse. In the 1940s, my family spent a lot of time exploring Puget Sound and camping in the San Juan Islands. Jigging up a rockfish or lingcod for a meal was something we took for granted. Back then, my dad would launch his 14-foot skiff from a Fidalgo Island beach and jig for cod and rockfish at Lawson Reef. The season never closed, and the limit was how many you could catch before it got dark or the weather turned bad.

It's vastly different now. In most of Puget Sound, the lingcod season is open for only 45 days, and the daily limit is one. It's illegal to fish for or retain any species of rockfish in the Sound. Outside Puget Sound, in the Pacific Ocean, you can still fish for and harvest rockfish, but it's a mere glimmer of what it used to be. A 15- to 20-year-old black rockfish is a rarity. On the other hand, anglers fishing Southcentral Alaska waters still routinely catch black rockfish that are more than 40 years old.

All along the Pacific Coast, from the U.S.-Mexico border to the Alaska-Canada border, areas where fishing and other activities are restricted have been set aside to protect various species, especially rockfish. Usually called Marine Protection Areas (MPAs) and Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs), they were initiated after long-lived rockfish species were nearly extirpated. Alaska, while having similar rockfish species, has no such areas.

I blame population pressures for most of Washington's problems. When it comes to fishing, there's no comparison between the two states. While there's nowhere near as much elbow room as there was in 1964, when I first made Alaska my home, there's still lots of good fishing.

Les Palmer is spending his first winter as a snowbird in Bellingham, Wash. He can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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